Lombardi Gets No Trophy

The Cleveland Browns restructured their front office on Tuesday, promoting Ray Farmer to general manager and announcing that CEO Joe Banner will step down in the next two months.

Farmer replaces Mike Lombardi and will immediately take the over the team’s football operations and lead the Browns during free agency and the draft. Additionally, the team announced that president Alec Scheiner will continue in charge of the organization’s business operations.

The major shakeup comes just a few weeks after the Browns hired Mike Pettine as their head coach.

“First of all, we wanted to capitalize on the knowledge, experience and character we’re fortunate to have in Ray Farmer,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said in a statement. “Ray has a tremendous football IQ, he’s compelling, and he understands the types of players we need to acquire and develop in order to win in Cleveland. He embraces his partnership with Mike Pettine, which is critical in helping build the right team. Ray will provide excellent leadership in our front office.

“We appreciate Joe’s contributions to the Cleveland Browns, especially in helping us as new owners. He was committed to creating a successful organization and bringing in talented individuals. We thank him for his work and dedication. We wish him and his family the best.

“Alec will continue in his role as President of this team. I think he’s one of the most intelligent and innovative young executives in the NFL.

“We’re also grateful for Mike Lombardi’s efforts and commitment since rejoining our organization. He is an experienced and creative NFL executive with a unique ability to see the big picture. He has tremendous instincts and I know he’ll be a valuable addition to any NFL organization. We simply wanted to give Ray this opportunity that he’s earned. We wanted to move forward under his leadership and capabilities.

“The purpose of these moves is to unify our team with one, unequivocal goal: Provide our fans with the winning organization they have long deserved.”

Banner, who previously worked in Philadelphia, became the team’s CEO in late October 2012.

“It is bittersweet leaving the Browns organization,” Banner said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Jimmy Haslam and helping him set the infrastructure for this franchise. I am proud of the talented individuals we brought in to help lead this team and feel that the Cleveland Browns are in good hands moving forward.”

Lombardi was hired by the Browns in January 2013 after working as an NFL Network analyst.

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Lombardi Gets No Trophy

The Cleveland Browns restructured their front office on Tuesday, promoting Ray Farmer to general manager and announcing that CEO Joe Banner will step down in the next two months.

Farmer replaces Mike Lombardi and will immediately take the over the team’s football operations and lead the Browns during free agency and the draft. Additionally, the team announced that president Alec Scheiner will continue in charge of the organization’s business operations.

The major shakeup comes just a few weeks after the Browns hired Mike Pettine as their head coach.

“First of all, we wanted to capitalize on the knowledge, experience and character we’re fortunate to have in Ray Farmer,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said in a statement. “Ray has a tremendous football IQ, he’s compelling, and he understands the types of players we need to acquire and develop in order to win in Cleveland. He embraces his partnership with Mike Pettine, which is critical in helping build the right team. Ray will provide excellent leadership in our front office.

“We appreciate Joe’s contributions to the Cleveland Browns, especially in helping us as new owners. He was committed to creating a successful organization and bringing in talented individuals. We thank him for his work and dedication. We wish him and his family the best.

“Alec will continue in his role as President of this team. I think he’s one of the most intelligent and innovative young executives in the NFL.

“We’re also grateful for Mike Lombardi’s efforts and commitment since rejoining our organization. He is an experienced and creative NFL executive with a unique ability to see the big picture. He has tremendous instincts and I know he’ll be a valuable addition to any NFL organization. We simply wanted to give Ray this opportunity that he’s earned. We wanted to move forward under his leadership and capabilities.

“The purpose of these moves is to unify our team with one, unequivocal goal: Provide our fans with the winning organization they have long deserved.”

Banner, who previously worked in Philadelphia, became the team’s CEO in late October 2012.

“It is bittersweet leaving the Browns organization,” Banner said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Jimmy Haslam and helping him set the infrastructure for this franchise. I am proud of the talented individuals we brought in to help lead this team and feel that the Cleveland Browns are in good hands moving forward.”

Lombardi was hired by the Browns in January 2013 after working as an NFL Network analyst.

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Mustangs Stampede Bearcats

Final Score: SMU 76, (7) Cincinnati 55

Dallas, TX  – With a win over a top-10 team for the first time since 1987, three victories against top-25 clubs this season, and an unbeaten record at home, the SMU Mustangs are certainly worthy of being ranked come Monday.

The latest win for the Mustangs may have put them over the top.

Nick Russell and Ben Moore each scored 15 points, as SMU upended No. 7 Cincinnati, 76-55, at Moody Coliseum to snap the Bearcats’ 15-game winning streak.

Nic Moore tallied 14 points for the Mustangs (19-5, 8-3 AAC), who have won three in a row and eight of their last nine contests.

When the game ended, fans rushed the court in jubilation, knowing the Mustangs, who haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1993, could move into the top-25 come Monday. This was SMU’s third win over a ranked opponent this season. The Mustangs beat then No. 17 Connecticut on Jan. 4 and turned back then-22nd-ranked Memphis last Saturday with both of those previous wins at Moody Coliseum.

SMU received a season-high 15 votes in this week’s AP Poll.

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has his team off to a 13-0 mark at home, including a 7-0 record in the renovated Moody Coliseum.

SMU also got revenge on the Bearcats for a 65-57 loss on New Year’s Day. The Mustangs held Cincinnati to 36.5 percent shooting in that game, but committed 17 turnovers and were outscored 23-8 at the foul line.

“That’s all we talked about doing is matching their energy. I thought we did that,” Brown said.

This game provided a different outcome thanks to the quick hands by SMU on defense. Cincinnati committed 19 turnovers. That helped the Mustangs get their first win over a top-10 squad since topping No. 7 Florida, on Dec. 3, 1987.

Sean Kilpatrick scored 22 for the Bearcats (22-3, 11-1), who lost for the first time since Dec. 14 against Xavier.

Cincinnati whittled an 18-point deficit early in the second half to 48-41 following two free throws from Titus Rubles at the midway point. SMU, though, scored the ensuing 11 points. Ben Moore stole the ball and drove in for layup. Nic Moore then drained a 3-pointer for a 57-41 cushion. Russell came up with a steal and cruised in for a layup to send the crowd into a frenzy and widen the gap to 18 points with just over eight minutes remaining.

The Bearcats were never within single digits the rest of the game, and the Mustangs moved to 14-games over .500 for the first time since SMU was 16-over at 21-5 in the 1999-00 season.

Crandall Head’s layup capped an 11-2 spurt, which widened SMU’s lead to 22-12 with just over six minutes left in the first half.

Keith Frazier’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the half provided the hosts with a 38-24 cushion after 20 minutes of play.

Game Notes

This is the first time SMU has defeated three ranked teams in the same season since 1984-85 (3 wins) … This is also the first on campus win over an opponent in the AP top 10 since Dec. 29, 1967 when the Mustangs defeated No. 3 Indiana, 91-84 … Kilpatrick tied the school record for consecutive games played, matching Keith Gregor (131 games from 1993-95) … SMU came into the game second in the nation holding teams to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and were limiting opponents to 61.3 ppg … The Bearcats shot 35.4 percent, including 4-of-24 from beyond the arc … SMU, which was also in the top-10 in the country by shooting 49.4 percent, made 54.3 percent from the floor.

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Mustangs Stampede Bearcats

Final Score: SMU 76, (7) Cincinnati 55

Dallas, TX  – With a win over a top-10 team for the first time since 1987, three victories against top-25 clubs this season, and an unbeaten record at home, the SMU Mustangs are certainly worthy of being ranked come Monday.

The latest win for the Mustangs may have put them over the top.

Nick Russell and Ben Moore each scored 15 points, as SMU upended No. 7 Cincinnati, 76-55, at Moody Coliseum to snap the Bearcats’ 15-game winning streak.

Nic Moore tallied 14 points for the Mustangs (19-5, 8-3 AAC), who have won three in a row and eight of their last nine contests.

When the game ended, fans rushed the court in jubilation, knowing the Mustangs, who haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1993, could move into the top-25 come Monday. This was SMU’s third win over a ranked opponent this season. The Mustangs beat then No. 17 Connecticut on Jan. 4 and turned back then-22nd-ranked Memphis last Saturday with both of those previous wins at Moody Coliseum.

SMU received a season-high 15 votes in this week’s AP Poll.

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has his team off to a 13-0 mark at home, including a 7-0 record in the renovated Moody Coliseum.

SMU also got revenge on the Bearcats for a 65-57 loss on New Year’s Day. The Mustangs held Cincinnati to 36.5 percent shooting in that game, but committed 17 turnovers and were outscored 23-8 at the foul line.

“That’s all we talked about doing is matching their energy. I thought we did that,” Brown said.

This game provided a different outcome thanks to the quick hands by SMU on defense. Cincinnati committed 19 turnovers. That helped the Mustangs get their first win over a top-10 squad since topping No. 7 Florida, on Dec. 3, 1987.

Sean Kilpatrick scored 22 for the Bearcats (22-3, 11-1), who lost for the first time since Dec. 14 against Xavier.

Cincinnati whittled an 18-point deficit early in the second half to 48-41 following two free throws from Titus Rubles at the midway point. SMU, though, scored the ensuing 11 points. Ben Moore stole the ball and drove in for layup. Nic Moore then drained a 3-pointer for a 57-41 cushion. Russell came up with a steal and cruised in for a layup to send the crowd into a frenzy and widen the gap to 18 points with just over eight minutes remaining.

The Bearcats were never within single digits the rest of the game, and the Mustangs moved to 14-games over .500 for the first time since SMU was 16-over at 21-5 in the 1999-00 season.

Crandall Head’s layup capped an 11-2 spurt, which widened SMU’s lead to 22-12 with just over six minutes left in the first half.

Keith Frazier’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the half provided the hosts with a 38-24 cushion after 20 minutes of play.

Game Notes

This is the first time SMU has defeated three ranked teams in the same season since 1984-85 (3 wins) … This is also the first on campus win over an opponent in the AP top 10 since Dec. 29, 1967 when the Mustangs defeated No. 3 Indiana, 91-84 … Kilpatrick tied the school record for consecutive games played, matching Keith Gregor (131 games from 1993-95) … SMU came into the game second in the nation holding teams to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and were limiting opponents to 61.3 ppg … The Bearcats shot 35.4 percent, including 4-of-24 from beyond the arc … SMU, which was also in the top-10 in the country by shooting 49.4 percent, made 54.3 percent from the floor.

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Spurs Netted

Final Score: Brooklyn 103, San Antonio 89

Brooklyn, NY  – Alan Anderson scored 22 points to lead the Brooklyn Nets to a 103-89 win over the depleted San Antonio Spurs at Barclays Center.

Deron Williams finished with 16 points and eight assists, Paul Pierce tallied 12 points, and Andray Blatche added 10 for Brooklyn, which snapped a six-game losing streak against San Antonio.

The Spurs, who already were without Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, were missing Tony Parker due to lower back tightness that saw the point guard leave Wednesday’s win against Washington and Tim Duncan, who was held out to rest.

Cory Joseph paced San Antonio with 18 points, while Danny Green netted 17 points and Patty Mills registered 16 points off the bench.

“I’m really proud of my guys. I thought they did a great job. After the [double overtime] game last night, then to come in here tonight, I thought the effort was great,” said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, referring to Wednesday’s close win over the Wizards.

The Spurs had their three-game winning streak snapped and the loss marked the first setback on their nine-game Rodeo road-trip. They still have six games remaining before returning back home.

Anderson scored the final nine points of the third quarter for Brooklyn in helping the Nets take a 75-68 lead into the fourth.

Anderson then opened the fourth-quarter scoring for Brooklyn after a pair of free throws from Joseph, and Andrei Kirilenko converted a dunk to push the Nets lead to 84-74.

Williams knocked down a 3 to start a quick 7-0 sprint that Anderson capped with a jumper for a 99-83 lead with 2:45 remaining in the game. San Antonio seemed to lose its legs down the stretch as Brooklyn pulled away late.

“We started attacking and stopped settling for the three. Once we start doing that, it opens up the lane for kick-outs, just penetrating and dishing, everything starts opening up,” Anderson said.

Joseph scored the final five points of an 18-6 surge to open the game for the Spurs as Brooklyn opened the game 3-for-10 from the field. The Nets clawed their way back in it, however, trailing 24-17 after 12 minutes and they took a slim 40-39 lead into the break.

Game Notes

Reserve forward Boris Diaw also missed the contest for San Antonio with food poisoning … Brooklyn finished 46-of-93 shooting … The Nets outrebounded the Spurs 53-38 … The Spurs were 24-for-29 from the free-throw line, while Brooklyn shot 7-of-10.

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Orange Flush

Syracuse, NY  – After prevailing in arguably the season’s most thrilling game for back easters over the weekend, the undefeated Syracuse Orange will get back to work on Monday night when they play host to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Atlantic Coast Conference action at the Carrier Dome.

 

Notre Dame has endured a disappointing season, especially since it entered the campaign among the likes of the nationally ranked, as it has gone just 12-10 overall and 3-6 in the ACC. The Irish most recently edged Boston College in overtime on Saturday, 76-73, but their record on the road has been dreadful (0-5).

 

In a game for the ages on Saturday night versus nationally-ranked Duke, Syracuse outlasted the Blue Devils in overtime, 91-89, to improve to 21-0, a school record for the longest winning streak to start a season. After top- ranked Arizona fell over the weekend, the Orange are one of only two remaining unbeaten teams in the nation, joining Wichita State. The squad has been nearly flawless at home in recent years, going 49-2 at the Carrier Dome since the start of the 2011-12 campaign.

 

Syracuse leads the all-time series with its former Big East rival, 25-19. The Orange have beaten the Irish in four of the last five meetings dating back to 2009.

 

The Irish had an opportunity to win their latest game in regulation when Eric Atkins stepped to the foul line down by one with one second left, but after a 1-of-2 trip forced overtime, Atkins made up for it with the game-winning 3- pointer in the waning seconds of the extra session. The squad shot 46 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle, 36-27. Atkins poured in a game- high 24 points, Pat Connaughton tallied 17 points and nine rebounds, while Zach Auguste and V.J. Beachem netted 10 points apiece.

 

Notre Dame hasn’t had much of a problem scoring points this season, shooting 46.1 percent from the field for 75.3 ppg, but it has been held back by a less- than-stellar scoring defense (70.9 ppg). The suspension of Jerian Grant (19.0 ppg, 6.2 apg) back in December has certainly limited the squad’s potential. Garrick Sherman (14.5 ppg) and Atkins (14.3 ppg) are neck-and-neck for the scoring lead, with Atkins dishing out 4.8 apg as well. Connaughton (13.5 ppg) does a large majority of his damage from 3-point distance (54-of-140).

 

The Orange held a single-digit lead for most of the second half against Duke on Saturday, but after Tyler Ennis made it a three-point game with five seconds left following a pair of free throws, Duke charged down the floor and Rasheed Sulaimon drilled the tying 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. Syracuse shot 3-of-4 from the field in the extra session and 7-of-8 at the free-throw line and dodge another game-tying attempt at the buzzer by the Blue Devils as it held on. C.J. Fair (28 points) and Jerami Grant (24 points, 12 rebounds) were both outstanding, while Trevor Cooney scored 14 points, Ennis had 14 points and nine assists and Rakeem Christmas hauled in 10 rebounds.

 

Syracuse has been strong on the offensive end of the floor this season, shooting greater than 46 percent from the field for 72.3 ppg. Its most telling attribute during its undefeated season however, has been its elite scoring defense, which ranks eighth-best in the country in allowing just 59.3 ppg. Unsurprisingly, it also has outstanding margins in the rebounding (+5.9) and turnover (+4.9) battles. Fair brings 17.2 ppg and 5.9 rpg to the table, while Cooney (13.2 ppg) has made 59 3-pointers at a 41-percent clip. Grant (13.0, 7.1 rpg) and Ennis (12.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.4 spg) round out an excellent group.

 

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Mules Collapse

East Rutherford, NJ – The Seattle Seahawks rode the NFL’s best defense to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.

 

Peyton Manning? He never came close to winning his second.

 

Seattle scored 12 seconds into each half and racked up 21 points off turnovers on the way to a 43-8 rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday.

 

Percy Harvin’s 87-yard kickoff return touchdown to start the second half came after Seattle also scored 12 seconds into the game on a snap that sailed over Manning’s head and into the end zone. The safety counted as the Super Bowl’s fastest-ever points.

 

Manning might have set passing and touchdown records in a dream regular season for the highest-scoring offense of all-time, but his third Super Bowl was a nightmare from start to finish.

 

“Giving them the lead played into their hands,” Manning said. “That’s what they do to a lot of teams. If you give them a lead it certainly benefits their defense.”

 

On the field his brother Eli calls home as quarterback of the New York Giants, Manning threw two interceptions in the first half and both were turned into touchdowns by the Seahawks.

 

Marshawn Lynch scored on a 1-yard run after the first pick and Malcolm Smith returned the second 69 yards for a 22-0 halftime lead. Cliff Avril hit Manning on the throw and Smith stepped in front of the floating pass.

 

“I just kind of attacked it and took off,” said Smith, who also recovered a fumble later and was named the game’s MVP.

 

It was a red-hot start for Seattle in the first Super Bowl played outdoors in a cold-weather city.

 

The climate wasn’t a factor for either team. After months of speculation that the game would be marred by bad weather, especially during a winter that has seen so much of it, the temperature at kickoff inside MetLife Stadium was 49 degrees.

 

The game dodged an approaching storm that was forecasted to dump snow on the area overnight and into Monday with a potential accumulation of several inches.

 

Instead, the Seahawks piled it on.

 

Harvin, back after missing the NFC title game with a concussion, fielded a short, bouncing kickoff after halftime and slipped at least three would-be tacklers for a shocking 29-0 lead.

 

“This was a dominant performance from top to bottom,” Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said. “That’s what this team is all about.”

 

The Seahawks didn’t have their “12th Man” — the spirited home fans who have turned Seattle’s CenturyLink Field into one of the NFL’s toughest venues.

 

It only seemed like they were playing with an extra man on defense.

 

Viral-video star Richard Sherman was knocked out late with an ankle injury, but by then the Seahawks didn’t need him.

 

Not after fellow Seattle corner Byron Maxwell poked the ball from Demaryius Thomas’ hands for a fumble that led to Russell Wilson’s first Super Bowl touchdown pass, a 23-yard throw to Jermaine Kearse to make it 36-0.

 

Thomas caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Manning at the end of the third quarter and the Broncos got the two-point conversion on Wes Welker’s catch, their only points of the game.

 

But Wilson and the Seahawks came right back for another score. The second-year quarterback hit Doug Baldwin for a 10-yard touchdown for the final score.

 

It was the first Super Bowl title for the Seahawks in two appearances.

 

Wilson — the former third-round pick — was 18-of-25 for 206 yards and Lynch rushed for 39 yards on 15 carries, never breaking off one of his “Beast Mode” runs.

 

Seattle didn’t need one.

 

“This is an amazing team,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “They’ve never taken a step sideways or backwards in getting to where they are now.”

 

The Broncos fell to 2-5 in seven Super Bowls. The two wins came in consecutive seasons in 1998-99 behind quarterback John Elway, now the team’s executive VP of football operations.

 

They have another all-time quarterback in Manning, who has led the Broncos to the AFC’s No. 1 seed in both of his seasons as their quarterback after missing his last year with the Indianapolis Colts following several neck surgeries.

 

Manning, 37, was trying to become the first quarterback to lead two franchises to a Super Bowl win and was attempting to match brother Eli’s two NFL titles.

 

He threw for 280 yards, completing 34-of-49 passes, and is now 1-2 in three Super Bowls after going 1-1 with Indianapolis. Manning won his record fifth NFL MVP award after throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in the regular season, both league records.

 

He scoffed at a question asking if Sunday’s loss was “embarrassing.”

 

“I think we played a great football team,” Manning said. “I think we needed to play really well to win and we didn’t come anywhere close to that.”

 

Manning said the high snap on the game’s first play was “a cadence issue.” Set up in the shotgun, he was walking toward the line and appeared to be calling out protection when center Manny Ramirez hiked the ball. Denver running back Knowshon Moreno recovered the ball in the end zone.

 

The safety came two seconds sooner than Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return for Chicago to begin Super Bowl XLI. Manning’s Colts beat the Bears in that game.

 

“Not the way you want to start a game,” said Manning. “For whatever reason we couldn’t get it started after that.”

 

Harvin, who played just one game in the regular season after having offseason hip surgery, had a 30-yard run on a reverse in the first quarter that led to Steven Hauschka’s 31-yard field goal for a 5-0 lead.

 

On Seattle’s next possession after a Denver three-and-out, Wilson dropped a pass into Baldwin’s hands for a 37-yard gain down the left sideline to the Denver 6. The catch came against Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, trying to win a Super Bowl for the first time in his 15th NFL season.

 

The Seahawks settled for a 33-yard field goal after Broncos linebacker Nate Irving knocked the ball out of Kearse’s hands on a third-down pass into the end zone.

 

Manning was then intercepted by safety Kam Chancellor, setting up Lynch’s touchdown.

 

The Broncos were the first NFL team in history to score 600 points in the regular season, but they ran into a buzzsaw.

 

The Seahawks went their last eight games — including the playoffs — without giving up more than 20 points. They led the NFL during the regular season in total defense and points allowed.

 

“It was really a good game for our guys on all sides, not just defensively,” said Carroll. “I’m proud of this entire team for what we were able to do all season long and especially here today.”

 

Game Notes

 

Moreno rushed five times for 17 yards in what could be the impending free agent’s last game for the Broncos … It was the first time in 23 years the NFL’s top offense and top defense met in the Super Bowl … The Broncos and Seahawks have met 52 times in the regular season, the second-most by Super Bowl opponents behind the Steelers and Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII (57 times) … Among the eight highest-scoring teams to reach the Super Bowl, only the 1999 “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams won … Seattle lost to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl after the 2005 season, its only other appearance in the game.

 

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Manning On A Mission

Denver Broncos head coach John Fox said the Broncos’ sojourn to the NFL’s greatest stage began following what some may consider one of the franchise’s most disappointing losses.

With first-year Bronco Peyton Manning leading the charge, Denver won its final 11 regular-season games in 2012 to earn the AFC’s top overall seed and seemed destined for a trip to New Orleans to play in Super Bowl XLVII.

But the Broncos were dumped on their home field 38-35 by the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens and the detractors came from far and wide.

Peyton can’t win the big game. The defense isn’t on par with the offense. Denver made a mistake not bringing back Tim Tebow.

Okay, maybe that last one didn’t center many arguments, but it was expected to be a rough offseason for the Broncos.

“There’s no doubt it’s been a journey. It kind of started there (with the loss to the Ravens),” Fox stated ahead of his team’s trip to Super Bowl XLVIII to face the Seattle Seahawks.

“We had finished the season pretty strong a year ago. Very disappointed in the loss at home. We worked very hard in the regular season to be the number one seed. I would say that it was a fire in everybody’s belly, the whole offseason as we went through preseason and, really, as we started this season. We had mostly the core of our players returning, so a lot of them had that fire in their belly.”

That was pretty evident in Week 1, when Manning returned under center to silence the critics. He did so by tying an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 rematch win over the visiting Ravens.

It was the kick start to a historic season for the four-time MVP, with Manning setting NFL single-season records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards.

And in large part to perhaps the best quarterback of this generation, the Broncos set a new record with 606 points scored in the season and matched an NFL mark by going over 50 points in three different games this season.

“Earlier, in that first season, he was adjusting to a lot,” Fox said of Manning. “He hadn’t played the year before, rehabbing a pretty serious (neck) injury, just staying in shape as a veteran player. The guy might be the best time manager I’ve ever been around as a professional. He’s earned everything that he’s gotten and he’s worked very, very hard.”

Sisyphus was driven to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. An NFL quarterback may go through a figurative obstacle if he tries to pilot an offense solo.

Perhaps the mythological figure could have accomplished his cursed stone- rolling task had he been allowed a little help and Manning had no problem sharing the wealth.

Armed with a strong supporting cast, the Broncos led the NFL with 457.3 yards and 37.9 points per game. That scoring pace was over a touchdown and field goal higher than the next closest teams, Chicago and New England at 27.8 PPG, and the plus-10.1 difference marked the second-biggest in NFL history behind only the 1941 Chicago Bears (plus-12.5).

All told, Denver became the first team in NFL history with five players scoring at least 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. No other previous team had more than three.

There was receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who joined Minnesota’s Cris Carter and Randy Moss as the only wide receiver tandems in league history with 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns each in consecutive seasons.

Thomas tied a franchise record with 14 receiving touchdowns on the season and finished third in the NFL with 1,430 yards; Decker was an excellent second option and stole the spotlight in Week 13 when he logged eight catches for 174 yards and a team-record four receiving touchdowns.

Slot specialist Wes Welker, one of a handful of new additions who paid an immediate return, created mismatch after mismatch and tight end Julius Thomas had plenty of room to set a club record for a tight end with 12 touchdown catches.

With all that action through the air, one tends to forget that running back Knowshon Moreno ran for over 1,000 yards and scored 10 rushing touchdowns while adding 548 yards and another three scores through the air.

There aren’t any divas to be found on this offense.

“I think it is obviously a tremendously talented group,” Fox said of the group. “I think having a guy directing it like we have in Peyton Manning — it’s a great bunch of guys because they are not selfish and the quarterback is the same way. Earlier in the year I was asked how I was going to keep them all happy.

“This game is about matchups. Depending on what the defense decides to take away, it gives you other options. We have seen a variety of different defensive schemes. I just think it speaks to those guys and obviously the quarterback directing it.”

Manning gets a lot of credit for Denver’s success, but a medical scare to Fox showed just how valuable the coach is to the recipe.

The Broncos were 7-1 and had rebounded from a loss at the Indianapolis Colts to beat the visiting Washington Redskins 45-21 on Oct. 27 before heading into their bye week. It was during this time that Fox felt dizzy while playing golf and was taken to a hospital, where it was learned he would have to undergo aortic valve replacement.

It was a situation that could have knocked the Broncos off the rails, but the club stuck together and went 3-1 under defensive coordinator and interim head coach Jack Del Rio.

“He’s a great leader. I think it really showed more when he wasn’t there,” cornerback Champ Bailey said of Fox. “Guys understood that we’ve still got a job to do. He preached, even from his hospital bed, how much we needed to just hone in on what’s in front of us and make sure we take care of business. Definitely don’t leave any stone unturned.”

Interestingly, the Broncos weren’t even a first-place team when Fox was forced to take a brief departure as the Kansas City Chiefs were in the midst of a 9-0 start. However, Fox came back to an AFC West-leading squad as the Broncos ended the Chiefs’ undefeated run with a 27-17 home win on Nov. 17 and bested the Chiefs again two weeks later on Decker’s big night after an overtime loss to the New England Patriots.

The following week would see the Broncos clinch a playoff berth with a 51-28 rout of the Tennessee Titans, with Manning setting a team record with 39 completions while six different player scored TDs.

Perhaps sensing the inevitable, Denver dropped a 27-20 home decision the following week to San Diego, snapping a 10-game divisional winning streak with its first loss of the year at Mile High.

That game also snapped a streak of 18 straight regular-season games with at least 25 points scored — the longest such run in NFL history — but the Broncos were right back at it again with a 37-13 win at Houston on Dec. 22 that clinched both the AFC West and a first-round bye.

The cliche is that defense wins championships and last season’s playoff loss showed that an excellent offense can only go so far.

Denver’s defense yielded 24.9 points per game and 356.0 yards per contest while ranking just 27th against the pass.

But it was also a unit that did not have star linebacker Von Miller for the season’s first six games due to violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy and was attempting to mix in a number of new starters in defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, defensive end Shaun Phillips, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and nose tackle Sylvester Williams.

Not surprisingly, the Broncos improved late. They led the NFL with 16 takeaways in the fourth quarter and have not allowed more than 17 points in their past four games, including playoff wins over San Diego (24-17) and New England (26-16).

That comes despite Miller missing the last three games with a season-ending knee surgery.

“If you look at our defense, we’ve been plugging, chugging all year. And a lot of us guys weren’t even on the team last year so it’s just learning the defense and understanding the philosophy and understanding where people fit at and where people don’t,” stated Phillips. “We’re just getting better and trying to hit our stride as we go on. We’re trying to prepare to play our best football game on defense in the last game of the season which would be the Super Bowl obviously.”

Phillips, whose 10 sacks ranked second in NFL history among pass rushers who signed with a new team in the previous offseason, is part of a defense that ranks second in the postseason in both scoring (16.5 PPG) and total defense (289.5 YPG).

The Broncos shut out the Chargers for the first three quarters to advance to the AFC Championship game, then forced Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to punt on its first three possessions en route to the offense building a 10- point lead by halftime and 20-3 edge through three quarters.

If that kind of effort continues at MetLife Stadium in the Super Bowl, the Broncos won’t just roll the boulder to the top of the hill; they’ll smash it into little pieces.

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Payton Shares The Wealth

Peyton Manning is certainly the linchpin of the best offense in NFL history but if you’re looking for an apt description of the game’s most explosive unit, try sharing the wealth like all good socialists want you to believe they do, until they run out of other people’s money.

The Denver Broncos were the first team in NFL history with five players scoring at least 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. Before the Broncos accomplished that feat, no other team in league lore had more than three players reach double figures.

“I think with this group, we speak of, ‘To be an outstanding team, you have to be selfless, not selfish,’” Denver coach John Fox said. “I think that speaks to the character of those guys in that room. They don’t get all pouty, or whatever you might want to put on it, about things like that. They just care about winning. I appreciate that attitude and I appreciate that mindset from those guys.”

The success of the Denver offense is directly tied to Manning’s high level of performance, along with a stunning group of playmakers which includes slot star Wes Welker, along with outside the numbers threats Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, as well as dynamic tight end Julius Thomas.

“Yeah, it’s impressive,” New England safety Steve Gregory said when talking about Denver’s playmakers. “You know, Decker, Thomas — the two Thomases — and then Wes.”

The running game is generated off that passing game and can gash you with veteran Knowshon Moreno, who cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark and finished with 13 total TDs, or rookie Montee Ball, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the regular season.

“As long as we were winning and doing what we have to do to come out with big victories — different people having the ball in their hand — it doesn’t matter,” Moreno said. “They’re making plays. You’re happy for them. That is just the character of a lot of guys on this team.”

The Broncos played with stunning efficiency this season, scoring 71 offensive touchdowns on 202 possessions, a 35.1 percentage, eight points higher than any other team.

No matter where you look the Denver offense is superlative. It’s red-zone efficiency of 76.1 percent (51-of-67) led the NFL. After allowing the fewest sacks in the league this season (20) and producing an NFL-high six games without giving up a quarterback takedown, the offensive line has only upped its proficiency in the postseason, going back-to-back games without allowing a sack.

Since taking over as Denver’s starting running back in Week 12 of the 2012 season, the unheralded Moreno ranks seventh in the NFL with 1,548 rushing yards and fifth in the league with 13 rushing scores, while the Broncos were the first team in history with five players catching at least 60 passes in a season.

It all begins and ends with Manning, perhaps the best signal caller to ever play the game and certainly the most astute of this generation, a player who simply outworks his competition off the field in the preparation aspect.

Manning is akin to having an offensive coordinator under center with the ability to get out of bad plays and into good ones in the blink of an eye. He performs at such a high level that each and every season is always Super Bowl title or bust for him and his teams, a measuring stick which actually speaks to his greatness.

“He’s been remarkable,” Fox said. “It’s unprecedented what he did.”

What he did was have the best statistical season in NFL history, breaking multiple NFL passing records, most notably the single-season marks for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477), while piloting an offense which led the league in scoring (37.9 points per game) and totaled the most points (606) ever.

Yet, the tag of coming up small in big games has haunted Manning since his college days at the University of Tennessee, where former Florida coach Steve Spurrier used to pile on Manning and the Volunteers by saying “you can’t spell Citrus without UT,” a reference to the Vols inability to get to the more high- profile Sugar Bowl, often settling for the Citrus Bowl.

Of course, a heck of a lot of other players have suited up with Manning over the years and the supporting cast hasn’t exactly been a constant in Manning’s postseason career.

Those kinds of things are all white nose to the everything is black-and-white crowd, however, the same group which wants to sacrifice Manning to the god of underachievers every time he loses a playoff game, something he has done 11 different times in his NFL career.

Most quarterbacks understand the job description and for the most part accept the fact they will be getting more credit than they deserve after a win and more blame than they should receive after a setback. That’s the nature of being the face of the franchise and playing perhaps the most important position in all of sports.

That said Manning more than held up his end of the bargain and clearly outplayed his long-time nemesis Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, something even his harshest detractors would have a hard time disputing. Heck, he even made losing more palatable for some of the Patriots.

“Losing is never easy,” New England edge rusher Rob Ninkovich said. “But when you have somebody as talented as (Manning), who puts in as much work and effort, and has done it for so long, it’s a little bit easier to swallow.”

Below is a capsule look at the offense of the Denver Broncos:

QUARTERBACKS: Manning will be playing in his third career Super Bowl on Feb. 2., joining ex-Bronco Craig Morton and Kurt Warner as the only three quarterbacks in league history to lead multiple teams to the Super Bowl.

A second Super Bowl crown is likely, the only thing that will silence some of the Peyton hatin’ crew, who tend to move the goal posts when Manning wins the AFC Championship Game. The conference title tilt ceases to be a big game and the Super Bowl becomes the be all, end all.

“The Super Bowl is always special, no matter where it is played,” said Manning. “For a lot of our players, it is their first time playing in one. So I think the fact that it is in New York is certainly going to be special, but it is a big deal because we worked so hard to get to this point. Two teams that have worked hard and have really laid it on the line all season long to be here. This is why you work hard all offseason for this opportunity. There is no question it is a big deal and it is very special to be playing in this game.”

His backup, the 6-foot-7 inch Brock Osweiler, is completely untested.

RUNNING BACKS: Moreno isn’t a gamebreaker, as evidenced by the fact his longest run on the season was just 31 yards, and the Broncos planned to use Ronnie Hillman as the starter early in the season until fumbling issues put him in the doghouse. To be truthful, if Moreno, who is dealing with a rib injury, didn’t have Manning checking into runs when he sees soft fronts, he wouldn’t be nearly as effective but for this team in this situation, he’s been extremely productive.

“I feel good. It is what it is,” Moreno said of his injury. “You have to just stay on top of it. For a lot of people, not a lot of injuries would keep you out of a game like this. I feel good though.”

Ball brings a nice change of pace and is far more explosive than Moreno but like most rookies pass protection can be an issue and with Denver that’s job No. 1.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Broncos wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and

Decker combined for the most receiving yards (2,718) in the NFL among offensive tandems in 2013. Thomas ranked fourth in the league with 1,430 yards while Decker’s 1,288 yards ranked 12th. The duo, who last year became the youngest receiving tandem in NFL history to post 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns each in the same year, join Cris Carter and Randy Moss (Minnesota 1998-99) as just the second duo in league history with 1,000 yards and 10 TDs each in consecutive seasons. Thomas is especially dangerous, ranking first in the NFL with 35 receptions of 25 yards or more since the beginning of last season.

“I think every game presents different challenges, whether it is certain coverages,” Decker said. “This, again, is going to be a huge challenge. We faced (Seattle) in the preseason and they’re tough. And we know we’ve got our work cut out for us. But again, we’re excited for that challenge and just to have the opportunity to be playing in the Super Bowl.”

Add in Welker, who owns two of the top four single-season receiving totals in NFL history in addition to being one of two players in league annals to top the 100-catch mark five times, from the slot, and it becomes a who do you cover situation for any defense.

The fact that Denver also has a top-tier receiving threat at tight end in Julius Thomas makes it almost unfair. A former basketball player at Portland State tied for fifth in the NFL with 12 receiving touchdowns this season — a total that represents the most in team history by a tight end. Thomas, who battled multiple injuries while combining for just one catch during his first two NFL seasons, finished the 2013 campaign with 65 receptions for 788 yards (12.1 avg.) to earn his first career Pro Bowl selection.

“I’m just really excited for the guy that he got healthy and did all the hard work it takes,” Fox said. Then he came in and learned a pretty intricate system from a pretty demanding quarterback and has done an outstanding job.”

OFFENSIVE LINE: The offensive line has continued to perform at a high level despite losing perhaps the best left tackle in the game, Ryan Clady, and veteran center Dan Koppen. The group is led by a pair of Pro Bowl-level guards in Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez.

Vasquez, who was signed by the Broncos in March as an unrestricted free agent from San Diego, earned his first career Pro Bowl selection after playing every offensive snap (1,207) and representing one of just three 16-game starting NFL guards to allow zero sacks on the year.

Manning’s ability to read the opposing defense and his lightning-quick release have helped fill-in left tackle Chris Clark, while center Manny Ramirez and right tackle Orlando Franklin have been solid for the most part.

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Carmelo Fury

Final Score: New York 125, Charlotte 96

New York, NY  – With the New York Knicks mired in a five- game losing streak and playing without their second-leading scorer, Carmelo Anthony decided to take matters into his own hands.

The result was the most prolific scoring performance in franchise history, a 62-point outburst that carried the Knicks to a 125-96 blowout win over the Charlotte Bobcats and wowed the Madison Square Garden crowd.

Anthony went 23-of-35 overall from the field, 6-of-11 from 3-point range and a perfect 10-of-10 from the foul line in breaking Bernard King’s previous club standard of 60 points set on Christmas Day of 1984.

“It was just one of those zones you go into,” said Anthony. “Only a certain group of people know what that zone feels like.”

The effort was also the largest by an individual at the current Madison Square Garden, as well as the highest point total in the NBA since Kobe Bryant poured in 65 in a Lakers’ win over Portland on Mar. 16, 2007.

Bryant also had held the record at the existing MSG, a 61-point display against the Knicks on Feb. 2, 2009.

“That was the best performance the Garden has ever seen. I’m just glad a Knick has that record again,” Knicks center Tyson Chandler remarked.

J.R. Smith finished a distant second among Knicks players with 14 points and Raymond Felton added 11 in New York’s first game without forward Andrea Bargnani, who tore a ligament in his left elbow during Wednesday’s home setback to Philadelphia.

Al Jefferson paced the Bobcats with 25 points and nine rebounds. Chris Douglas-Roberts had 14 points for Charlotte, which came in having won two in a row despite leading scorer Kemba Walker sitting out with a sprained ankle.

“He’s one of the best scorers in the world,” Jefferson said. “Melo took it to another level.”

Anthony was on fire right from the start, knocking down a pair of threes and dropping in eight points as the Knicks opened the game with a 12-4 run. He buried 8-of-10 shot attempts during a 20-point first quarter in which New York was ahead by as many as 10 before ending the period with a 30-21 lead.

“Coming into the game, for some reason I just had a different type of focus,” said Anthony.

It was more of the same in the second quarter, as Anthony hit on 7-of-11 field goal tries in tallying 17 more points that enabled the Knicks to extend the margin.

The star forward led New York on a 12-4 burst midway through the period that lengthened its advantage to 50-38, then later capped his incredible first half by sinking a half-court shot at the buzzer that sent the Knicks into the break owning a commanding 67-46 advantage.

With Anthony doing most of the damage, New York shot a sizzling 63.6 percent over the initial two quarters.

Anthony didn’t cool down after the intermission either, racking up 19 additional points on a 7-of-9 success rate in the third quarter as the Knicks continued to pull away.

He eclipsed the 50-point mark for the first time in his career on a fastbreak finger-roll layup off a Tim Hardaway Jr. steal with 3:54 remaining in the frame, with the basket staking New York to a insurmountable 89-60 lead.

Head coach Mike Woodson allowed Anthony a chance to break King’s mark with the outcome already decided in the fourth quarter. The record-setting shot came on a banked-in short jumper with 7:23 to go, after which Woodson called time out and Anthony headed to the bench amidst a thunderous ovation from the home crowd.

Game Notes

Anthony added 13 rebounds to become the first NBA player with at least 55 points and 10 boards in a game since LeBron James did so with Cleveland in March 20, 2005 … The Knicks went 14-of-27 on 3-point tries, with Smith hitting 3-of-4 attempts from beyond the arc … Douglas-Roberts finished 4- of-5 on 3-point shots … Knicks reserve center Jeremy Tyler had a season-best eight points in 22 minutes in an expanded role due to Bargnani’s injury.

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Big 10 Strugglers

Columbus, OH – A pair of struggling Big Ten Conference foes get together on Thursday night, as the Illinois Fighting Illini come calling on the 17th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

Both teams are mired in four-game losing streaks, and they are separated by only two games with regard to their overall records.

Illinois comes in at 13-6 (2-4 in conference), and the team has dropped recent decisions to league rivals Wisconsin, Northwestern, Purdue and Michigan State, the last two coming at home. The Illini are just 1-3 in true road games, having lost their last three on enemy hardwood.

Ohio State began the season at 15-0, but the squad has fallen on hard times of late, losing to Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and most shockingly, Nebraska. The 68-62 setback to the Cornhuskers in Lincoln on Monday night, dropped the Buckeyes’ record on the road to 2-3. The knock on Thad Matta’s team heading into conference play was that it hadn’t faced much in the way of top-flight competition, an opinion that apparently has some merit considering the Buckeyes recent troubles.

Illinois owns a 101-66 advantage in the all-time series with Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have won 12 of the 17 meetings between the two since Matta took over to start the 2004-05 campaign.

The two teams will meet again in Champaign on Feb. 15.

Poor shooting and a relaxed defensive approach did the Illini in last Saturday against visiting Michigan State, as the team connected on only 37.7 percent of its field goal attempts, while allowing the Spartans 55.8 percent success on theirs. Tracy Abrams led the way for Illinois with 15 points, while Jon Ekey and Rayvonte Rice chipped in with 12 points apiece. MSU nearly doubled UI in points in the paint (38-20), while easily winning the rebounding battle by a 38-25 margin.

Rice continues to pace the Illini in the scoring column with his 17.4 ppg, and he leads the team in rebounding (5.9 rpg) and steals (23) as well. Abrams (12.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.4 apg) and Joseph Bertrand (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) round out the double-digit scorers for Illinois, which generates 69.3 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .416 overall and .311 from 3-point range, while at the same time allowing the opposition to hit 41.3 percent of its total shots, which includes a 34.0 percent showing from beyond the arc, on its way to only 63.7 ppg.

Ohio State too put forth a dismal shooting effort in the recent loss to Nebraska, converting a mere 39.6 percent of its field goal attempts, including only 6-of-21 tries from 3-point land. In contrast, the Cornhuskers made good on 50 percent of their total shots, despite missing the mark on 11 of their 13 long-range launches. Nebraska turned the ball over 17 times, but used a 20-14 edge in points from the foul line, coupled with a 33-27 advantage on the glass to pull off the upset. Aaron Craft paced the Buckeyes with 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists, while LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. both went just 4-of-12 from the floor to tally 11 and 10 points, respectively.

Ross and Smith, Jr. are OSU’s only double-digit scorers on the season, the duo combining for 25.8 ppg. The Buckeyes rely much more on contributions from multiple players, as five others net between 6.7 and 9.2 ppg. As a team, Ohio State is putting up 73.3 ppg, doing so on typical shooting efforts of .459 overall and .340 from beyond the arc. Where the team really earns its merit is on defense, as opponents are permitted just 58.5 ppg on the strength of a 39.2 percent shooting performance, which includes a dismal 26.1 percent showing from downtown. Add to that more than 15 turnovers per game, and it’s not hard to see why so many foes have fallen by the wayside this season.

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Wolverines Bite Back

Final Score: (21) Michigan 75, (10) Iowa 67

Ann Arbor, MI – Nik Stauskas tallied 26 points, five rebounds and five assists as the 21st-ranked Michigan Wolverines took down their second straight top-10 foe with a 75-67 triumph over No. 10 Iowa from Crisler Center.

Stauskas, who scored the last 11 points to carry the Wolverines (14-4, 6-0 Big Ten) past then-No. 3 Wisconsin on Saturday, shot 8-of-14 from the floor in Michigan’s eighth straight win after losing at home to top-ranked Arizona on Dec. 14.

“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” said Stauskas. “I think that everyone is starting to understand their roles and guys are really confident.”

Glenn Robinson III added 14 points and nine rebounds, while Jordan Morgan and Zak Irvin posted 12 and 11 points, respectively. Spike Albrecht made his first collegiate start, donating seven assists with a career-high four steals.

“Honestly, we just take it game by game,” said Albrecht, when asked about Michigan’s grueling stretch of three straight games against ranked opponents. “Every game we just try and go 1-0 that game. But now after this one, we can look forward to Saturday’s game.”

Melsahn Basabe netted 15 of his 17 points in the first half for Iowa (15-4, 4-2), which had its three-game winning streak snapped, while Aaron White scored all but one of his 17 in the second. Roy Devyn Marble chipped in 13 points, but had two crucial turnovers down the stretch.

Basabe scored 11 of Iowa’s first 17 points before checking out with the Hawkeyes holding a three-point edge, but Stauskas’ 4-for-4 start, including his second triple at 8:22, knotted the score at 21-apiece. Robinson’s offensive board and putback on Stauskas’ first miss from deep gave Michigan a 23-21 edge 12 minutes into the game.

“The amazing thing about him (Stauskas) has been his consistency all year,” said Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. “He’s obviously somebody that everyone marks, yet he’s still able to get shots out of the offense, get shots on his own. He’s really doing a lot off the dribble.”

The lead changed hands six times with seven ties in the first half. Iowa led 31-30 at 4:11, but a Stauskas three-point play two minutes later capped a 6-0 surge. Neither team led by more than five in the period, with the Wolverines owning a 38-34 lead at halftime.

Michigan built the game’s first double digit advantage minutes into the second half. It was 47-43 when Stauskas canned a corner three for his 21st point. Robinson then drove the lane and threw down a two-handed jam and Albrecht stole the ensuing inbounds pass and laid it in for a 54-43 edge at 14:05. Albrecht’s bucket was his first 2-pointer since Nov. 29.

White scored every point during a 13-5 Hawkeyes push late in the contest. His dunk at 2:32 cut Iowa’s deficit to 67-64, but the visitors fell asleep on the other end and lost Robinson, who laid in an alley-oop from Albrecht to restore Michigan’s two-possession lead.

Stauskas, Albrecht and Robinson all made two free throws in the final minute to secure the outcome.

Game Notes

Stauskas has scored 20-plus points with at least four rebounds and four assists in three straight games … Morgan shot 5-of-6 for the field. He is now shooting 22-for-26 in conference play … The Wolverines travel to East Lansing for a meeting with Michigan State, which is also unbeaten in conference play, on Saturday … Iowa lost for the first time this season when trailing at halftime.

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Glamor Boys Final

Melbourne, Australia – Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will resume their rivalry in the Australian Open semifinals after each posted four- set quarterfinal victories on Wednesday.

The world No. 1 Nadal was the first to advance, claiming a 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (9-7), 6-2 triumph over 22nd-seeded Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, before Federer reached his 11th straight Aussie Open semi with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3 victory over fourth-seeded Andy Murray at Rod Laver Arena.

The former No. 1 great Federer, seeded sixth at this fortnight, reached the final four of a Grand Slam for the first time since falling to the reigning Wimbledon champion Murray in the Melbourne semis last year. He was a quarterfinal loser at the French Open last spring, then suffered a stunning second-round loss at Wimbledon and a fourth-round exit at the U.S. Open.

The 17-time Grand Slam champ is seeking his first Aussie crown since 2010, when he beat Murray in the final. The 26-year-old Murray is a three-time Aussie runner-up, including last year here against Novak Djokovic.

After Federer took the first two sets from Murray, including a brisk 31-minute opening stanza, the Brit fought back in the third, saving two match points in the tiebreak.

Federer served for the match, leading 5-4 in the third, but Murray notched his first break, on only his first break-point of the match, against the Swiss icon, who had not been broken in 50 consecutive service games.

The four-time Aussie Open champion Federer opened up 5-2 and 6-4 leads in the tiebreak, but had the match points thwarted. First a forehand error and then a backhand error as Murray stayed alive. The Scot would then paint a line with a forehand winner to earn a set point and converted to force a fourth set.

A resilient Murray kept the match tight in the fourth, but he gave Federer too many open chances. Finally, on his 10th break point of the set, the Swiss stepped in with a big backhand return to set up a winning point and then served things out.

Federer broke Murray four times, while the Brit settled for only one break in only two break-point opportunities all night.

“Andy played well and put the pressure on me so I’m happy to get the win,” a relieved Federer said in a courtside interview. “I probably miss more break points than other guys but I keep my composure and keep the poker face and tonight it worked.”

The 32-year-old Federer is now 10-11 lifetime against Murray, including 2-1 at the Aussie.

A rusty Murray returned to action just a few weeks ago after being sidelined for 3 1/2 months following minor back surgery.

Meanwhile, the 2009 Aussie Open champ and 2012 runner-up Nadal dropped the first set to Dimitrov on Day 10, but the 13-time major titlist gritted through a pair of tough tiebreaks over the next two sets before running away with the final set at Melbourne Park. The bout ended in 3 hours, 37 minutes.

“I was so lucky,” Nadal said. “It gives me the opportunity to be in semifinals of a tournament I love so much.”

It will be the fourth semifinal appearance at the Aussie Open for the reigning U.S. and French Open champ.

The rising star Dimitrov, who became the first Bulgarian to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam singles event, dropped to 0-4 in his career against Nadal. He smacked 16 aces in a losing effort.

The left-handed Nadal improved to 4-0 lifetime against the 22-year-old Dimitrov.

Nadal and Federer will meet for a 33rd time on Friday, with the Spaniard leading the all-time series, 22-10, including 8-2 in Grand Slam action. Nadal is 2-0 versus Federer at the Aussie, including a win in the 2009 finale.

The high-flying Nadal has won four straight and eight of their last 10 meetings overall.

The “Big Four” of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer have combined to win 34 of the last 35 Grand Slam events.

The first men’s semifinal will be staged on Thursday, when seventh-seeded Tomas Berdych takes on eighth seed Stanislas Wawrinka. Both men will appear in their first-ever Aussie semi. Wawrinka is 8-5 lifetime against the former Wimbledon runner-up Berdych, but the Czech captured their lone Aussie Open meeting in 2009. Wawrinka bested Berdych in the fourth round at the U.S. Open back in September.

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Nothing But Net

Final Score: Oklahoma City 105, Portland 97

Oklahoma City, OK  – Kevin Durant scored 11 of his 46 points in the final 3:23 to lift the Oklahoma City Thunder over the Portland Trail Blazers, 105-97, in a battle between two of the NBA’s very best on Tuesday.

Durant went 17-of-25 from the field and 6-of-7 from beyond the arc for the Thunder, who have won four in a row to build a one-game lead over Portland for first place in the Northwest Division. He has scored at least 30 points in eight consecutive games.

Reggie Jackson tallied 15 points and seven rebounds for Oklahoma City, which trails idle San Antonio by a half game for the top spot in the Western Conference. Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher each added 10 points in the triumph.

LaMarcus Aldridge ended with 29 points and 16 boards for the Blazers, who have dropped two straight since a five-game winning streak. Wesley Matthews tallied 21 points in defeat.

“It was disappointing to lose the game, but on the road against Oklahoma City if you can put yourself in position to win the game late in the fourth quarter, that’s what you want. I thought we played a very good game,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.

Portland led 93-90 when Durant was called for an offensive foul. Just moments later, Durant was issued a technical foul following a foul on Kendrick Perkins. The Blazers made two of the three free throws to go up by five.

A fired-up Durant made a layup to ignite a 15-0 Oklahoma City run. He followed that up with a 3-pointer to tie the game.

After Aldridge turned the ball over, Jackson made a running jumper to give the home team the lead. Ibaka and Perkins combined to block three shots on the ensuing Portland possession, which ended with Aldridge missing a jumper.

Perkins made a jumper and Durant added two more 3-pointers to make it a 105-95 contest.

“We didn’t give up,” Perkins said. “The time we went down five, we had to get a stop and we did it. I just felt like we’re growing. You can tell on the defensive end. They hit some shots. Portland is a good team, and they make shots. We started making them miss.”

Portland led 27-21 after the first quarter and took a 52-51 edge into the locker room.

The Thunder outscored the Blazers by a 26-23 margin in the third to take a 77-75 lead into the fourth.

Game Notes

Damian Lillard and Mo Williams had 14 and 13 points, respectively, for the Blazers … The Thunder went 10-of-15 from beyond the arc.

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Shocker? Not So Much

Final Score: Creighton 96, (4) Villanova 68

Philadelphia, PA – Ethan Wragge netted a career-high 27 points, Doug McDermott scored 23 and unranked Creighton shocked No. 4 Villanova with a 96-68 drubbing on Monday.

Wragge hit 9-of-14 from behind the arc, matching Kyle Korver’s school record for 3-pointers in a game set in 2003, as Creighton (16-3, 6-1 Big East broke a conference record with 21 treys in the rout.

“It was a start like I’ve never seen before,” said Creighton head coach Greg McDermott,” but I can’t say I’m surprised because I’ve seen it in practice. I’ve seen this kid do this before and I’ve said to a lot of people I think he’s as good a shooter as there is in the country. Now I think people may believe me.”

This was Creighton’s third win over a top-5 team in program history

McDermott added five triples and Jahennis Manigat had four en route to a career-best 19 points for the Bluejays, who came back stronger than ever after their first conference loss on Saturday at Providence. Austin Chatman had 10 assists in the triumph.

James Bell paced Villanova (16-2, 5-1) with 19 points, while JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard contributed 11 and 10, respectfully.

Creighton got off to, quite literally, the perfect start. The Bluejays led 21-5 at the first media timeout after hitting seven 3-pointers without a miss, including five from Wragge. Wragge hit the first two outside shots of the game for a 6-0 lead. Manigat then joined the action with a trey from the right wing, McDermott hit his try from the left wing and Wragge added three more, two of which were from well beyond NBA range.

“They were outstanding,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “They were really on top of their game. Getting behind the team like that, the way they moved the ball and with their quickness, was really tough to overcome.”

The onslaught continued out of the break, with McDermott assisting on two more Wragge 3-pointers. Pinkston then scored four in a row to make it 27-12, but Creighton wasn’t finished. McDermott potted another 3, then hit a fadeaway jumper before Manigat canned his second 3-ball of the contest for a 35-14 edge less than nine minutes in.

The lead ballooned to 47-19 before Ryan Arcidiacono’s 3-pointer capped a 13-0 Villanova run. Wragge’s eighth triple halted the surge, but the Wildcats scored nine of the final 13 points of the half as Hilliard’s running layup as the buzzer sounded cut Nova’s deficit to 54-41 at the break.

The second half was dominated by the visiting Bluejays. Manigat’s make from long range just over four minutes in sparked a 14-0 surge to seal the outcome midway through the period. Chatman’s heave from distance made it 74-45.

Creighton’s advantage reached 40 points on Wragge’s backdoor alley-oop for Will Artino with 6:35 to play.

Game Notes

Creighton had lost the previous three meetings with Villanova, the last of which occurred in 1952 … McDermott has scored at least 19 points in 18 of 19 games this season … Wragge has made at least two 3-pointers in all but one game this season … Creighton improved to 25-1 when Manigat hits three-or- more triples, and 39-3 when he has three or more assists … The Bluejays scored 1.45 points per possession, the most in a “major” conference game since Syracuse had 1.50 PPP against DePaul on March 5, 2011.

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Goodnight Sweet Prince

Melbourne, Australia  – Stan Wawrinka put an end to Novak Djokovic’s reign at the Australian Open on Tuesday.

There will be no Down Under four-peat for Djokovic, as the eighth-seeded Swiss slugger Wawrinka outlasted the second-seeded three-time defending champion 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 at Melbourne Park’s Rod Laver Arena.

The intense affair was tied at 5-5 in the fifth set when a rain shower started to fall, forcing a brief stoppage.

When the players returned to the court, with Wawrinka serving at 40-15 in the 11th game of the stanza, the sturdy Swiss swatted his 17th ace to grab a 6-5 edge.

Five games later, the former world No. 1 Djokovic was serving to stay in the match, but his Swiss counterpart recorded the biggest break of the fortnight on the men’s side when Djokovic misfired wide with one final forehand, sending Wawrinka into his first-ever Aussie Open semi and second career major final four. He also appeared in last year’s U.S. Open semis, only to lose to Djokovic.

This was yet another five-set thriller in their burgeoning rivalry.

The big-hitting bout was finally completed in four hours, including a 79- minute, 16-game final set. Wawrinka broke Djokovic five times, while the Serb settled for four breaks in the tough setback. Djokovic actually won eight more points than Wawrinka (161-153), but one more break of serve was the difference on Day 9.

The 28-year-old Wawrinka had dropped his last 14 matches against the 26-year- old mighty Djokovic, who is now 15-3 lifetime against the Swiss. Wawrinka hadn’t beaten him since 2006. Djokovic outlasted Wawrinka in a five-set epic in the fourth round in Melbourne a year ago and also topped the Swiss in a brilliant five-set U.S. Open semi in September.

The six-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic had won his last 25 matches at the Aussie Open, where he’d captured three straight and four of the last six championships. The super Serb had also appeared in 14 straight major semifinals before this week, the second-longest streak in history behind only Roger Federer’s 23.

His loss on Tuesday marked his first since falling to Rafael Nadal in September’s U.S. Open final (28-1). Djokovic had also won his last 13 matches overall against fellow top-10 players.

Djokovic was trying to become the first man in the Open Era to win four straight Aussie crowns.

Wawrinka, who had been 2-28 against top-two players, including 0-6 at Grand Slam events, joins Federer as the only Swiss men to reach multiple Grand Slam semifinals.

Wawrinka’s semifinal opponent on Thursday will be seventh-seeded former Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych, who upset third seed David Ferrer 6-1, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 on Tuesday. The 28-year-old Berdych, like Wawrinka, will now appear in his first-ever Aussie semi.

Berdych fended off a Ferrer comeback attempt on Day 9.

The big Czech won the first two sets in quick fashion, then suddenly lost the momentum when the French Open runner-up Ferrer rallied to take the third.

However, the hard-hitting Berdych, having lost in the quarters of the Aussie Open the previous three years, made sure it wouldn’t happen a fourth straight time as he finished off a four-set triumph at Laver.

The first set lasted just 30 minutes, and Berdych appeared poised to make it a quick afternoon by taking a two-sets-to-love lead.

The 31-year-old Ferrer, however, broke Berdych’s serve twice in a third set that saw the Spaniard nudge a line judge standing near a chair he wanted to place a towel on.

But the frustrated Ferrer couldn’t overcome Berdych’s serve in the fourth set, as the Czech staved off a break point in the final game and came away with the victory in 3 hours, 3 minutes.

Ferrer rallied from two sets down to beat fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro in last year’s Aussie quarters before eventually losing in the semis to Djokovic.

The quarterfinals will conclude on Wednesday, when the current world No. 1 Nadal takes on 22nd-seeded Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and fourth-seeded Andy Murray battles the sixth-seeded former No. 1 great Federer.

The reigning U.S. and French Open champion Nadal is 3-0 lifetime against the 22-year-old Dimitrov, while the Wimbledon titlist Murray is 11-9 all-time versus Federer, including 1-1 at the Aussie. Federer beat Murray in the 2010 final here, but avenged that loss in the semis in Melbourne last season.

The “Big Four” of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer have combined to win 34 of the last 35 Grand Slam events. The 13-time major champion Nadal was the Aussie champ in 2009 and runner-up to Djokovic in 2012; Murray is a three-time runner-up, including last year against Djokovic; and the 17-time Grand Slam king Federer owns four Aussie titles and was the 2009 runner-up here to Nadal.

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Big East Powers Collide

The Creighton Bluejays take on the Villanova Wildcats in a pivotal early Big East Conference clash.

Creighton had been soaring above the competition before visiting Providence on Saturday. The Bluejays suffered an 81-68 setback to the Friars, ending a 10- game win streak, leaving them at 15-3 overall and 5-1 in conference. Creighton will battle Georgetown next, as the team kicks off a three-game homestand.

On Saturday, Villanova won its fifth straight contest since suffering its first and only loss of the season to Syracuse at the end of December, topping DePaul in an 88-62 final. The Wildcats, who are a perfect 9-0 at home, will play four games at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, as following this evening’s clash will be bouts with St. John’s, Marquette and Georgetown.

Villanova won each of the three previous matchups with Creighton, all of which occurred between 1950 and 1952.

Despite 21 points from Doug McDermott, Creighton did not come up with enough stops on defense or get enough going offensively to take down Providence. The Bluejays allowed the Friars to sink 50.9 percent from the floor and Devin Brooks (10 points) was the only other player to reach double figures for the visitors.

Creighton is normally one of the top teams in the conference at both ends of the floor. The Bluejays lead the Big East in scoring (81.8 ppg), assists (18.5 apg) and field goal percentage (.491), while also playing strong defense (66.1 ppg, .409 FG percentage). McDermott (24.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is widely considered to be one of the best players in the country, and for good reason. The 6- foot-8 forward can score from anywhere on the floor, which has led to an average that is second only to Niagara’s Antoine Mason (27.6 ppg) in the country. Ethan Wragge (11.3 ppg) is the only other member of the team averaging in double figures, but there are a total of seven players netting at least six ppg.

James Bell scored 17 points to lead five players in double figures as Villanova breezed by DePaul at The Pavilion on Saturday. The Wildcats shot 55.4 percent from the floor and registered assists on 21 of their 31 field goals. They also had a 37-26 edge on the glass and held the Blue Demons to 40.7 percent shooting.

The Wildcats are also a team that can score with alarming regularity while also putting on at the defensive end. The Wildcats rank second in the Big East in scoring (81.3 ppg) and assists (16.2 ppg), while surrendering only 65.4 ppg on 38.8 percent shooting. JayVaughn Pinkston (15.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) is the primary scoring option on a roster that features four double-digit scorers. However, Pinkston had only eight points on 2-of-5 shooting against DePaul. Bell (13.9 ppg) and Darrun Hilliard (13.7 ppg, 3.1 apg) are also reliable scorers, while Josh Hart (10.1 ppg) provides a spark off the bench.

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Black On Black Crime

There is a reason Floyd Mayweather Jr. has turned into the biggest box office attraction in boxing.

And it’s the sizzle, not the steak.

Mayweather is a great performer, perhaps the best defensive fighter who has ever lived, but the casual fans who drive things like pay-per-view buys have no interest in any of that. They just want to see the braggadocios Mayweather get his comeuppance.

Richard Sherman has been a football star for some time, a two-time All-Pro regarded as one of the best cover cornerbacks in the game. Sunday, however, he became a mainstream media sensation after sending the Seattle Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII with a brilliant game-saving play in the end zone against Michael Crabtree and the San Francisco 49ers.

It wasn’t Sherman’s play, though, which amped up his star-power, it was his antics afterward that sent the nation into a tizzy.

In the waning seconds of Seattle’s 23-17 win Sherman tipped a pass intended for Crabtree in the back-right corner of the end zone, enabling linebacker Malcolm Smith to pick off the ball to halt a potential Niners’ game-winning drive, sealing Seattle’s second Super Bowl trip.

After celebrating his spectacular effort replays showed Sherman approaching Crabtree and taunting the receiver by slapping him on the butt and presumably telling the dejected Texas Tech product just how good he is, a gesture which resulted in Crabtree pie-facing Sherman.

Sherman was penalized but continued celebrating by making a choking gesture directed at Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick before finally setting Twitter afire with a WWE-like post-game interview which seemed to startle FOXSports sideline reporter Erin Andrews.

“I’m the best corner in the game,” Sherman screamed. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about me.”

A stunned Andrews managed to stammer a follow-up question: “Who was talking about you?” she asked.

“Crabtree,” Sherman replied. “Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’m gonna settle it for you real quick.”

At that point, probably fearing what an unhinged Sherman might do with a live microphone, Andrews turned it back over to the booth and Joe Buck.

Within seconds observers on social media threw the kitchen sink at the Stanford-educated Sherman, calling the potential NFL Defensive Player of the Year everything from classless to a thug.

He was neither?

That’s not to say Sherman likes the 49ers or Crabtree. That grudge is real and may have started over the summer, at least according to his older brother Branton, who told the Seattle Times that it was Crabtree who ignited the animosity at a charity event in which the receiver allegedly tried to start a fight.

According to Branton Sherman’s take, his brother responded by saying: “I’m going to make a play and embarrass him.”

Whether that tale has been embellished or not is up for debate. What’s not is that Crabtree fueled Sherman’s fire last week when asked if the Seahawks star was the best corner in the league.

“Uh, no, I don’t think so,” Crabtree said last Thursday before following up with some context.

“I don’t know (anything) about the best cornerbacks in the league,” the Niners’ top receiver continued. “I just know teams. We are playing the Seattle Seahawks and, hopefully, we come out with a win. You study him and you study the defense, the overall defense. A lot of guys play coverages. It isn’t just man-to-man the whole game. So you got to study the whole defense. It is not just one guy. It is the entire defense.”

It’s not like subtlety or semantics are lost on a guy like Sherman, who graduated second in his class in high school and made it through Stanford, one of the top academic institutions in this country.

But, he was fired up and excited to reach the Super Bowl when Andrews queried him on live television. Within 20 minutes after looking like a wild man, he was on the set with FOX, speaking as eloquently as any NFL cornerback ever has.

By Monday, Sherman was even contrite.

“It was loud, it was in the moment, and it was just a small part of the person I am,” Sherman wrote Monday on TheMMQB.com, where he is a regular contributor.

He even gave credit to his supporting cast before finishing up by defending his own character.

“When I say I’m the best cornerback in football, it’s with a caveat: There isn’t a great defensive backfield in the NFL that doesn’t have a great front seven,” Sherman wrote. “Everything begins with pressure up front, and that’s what we get from our pass rushers every Sunday.

“I don’t want to be a villain, because I’m not a villainous person. To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field — don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.”

That die is already cast, though.

Sherman could be ordained before Feb. 2 and Peyton Manning will still be the one arriving in North Jersey with the white hat on.

Sherman should take a page from Mayweather’s book here and embrace his inner- heel while building his own brand on football’s biggest stage.

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Manning KO’s Belichick

Final Score: Denver 26, New England 16

Denver, CO  – Peyton Manning broke Tom Brady’s single- season record for touchdown passes and then one-upped him in the AFC Championship Game.

Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns and the Denver Broncos defeated the New England Patriots 26-16 on Sunday.

The Broncos advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII, where they will play the Seattle Seahawks, who defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17, in the NFC Championship Game later on Sunday.

Manning completed 32-of-43 passes for the Broncos, who will appear in their seventh Super Bowl.

Manning is 5-4 in his last nine matchups against Brady — including the postseason — after dropping the first six meetings between the two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks. They have both won a pair of home playoff games against one another.

Sunday’s game marked the third AFC Championship Game meeting in the last 11 years between the two, dating back to the 2003 season when Brady’s Patriots got the best of Manning’s Colts.

Brady and New England downed Indianapolis in the divisional round a season later but Manning and the Colts got revenge in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.

Less than three years ago, Manning was recovering from a surgically-repaired neck. Now he’ll get an opportunity to win his second Super Bowl ring in the home stadium of younger brother Eli Manning on Feb. 2 at the Meadowlands.

Manning’s 55 touchdown passes surpassed Brady’s single-season mark of 50.

The Broncos outgained the Patriots 507-320.

“You can rename the AFC Championship after the Patriots, they’ve been here so many times and they know how to win big games,” Manning said. “To beat them is a significant win.”

In Week 12 this season, Brady rallied the Patriots after Denver jumped out to a 24-0 halftime and led them to a 34-31 overtime win in Foxboro.

There was no Brady comeback this time.

Denver led 13-3 at halftime and Manning came out of the break to lead the Broncos on their longest time-consuming drive of the season.

He was 6-of-7 for 53 yards on the opening 13-play, 80-yard drive to start the third, which gave Denver a 20-3 cushion. The Broncos picked up six first downs on the 7:08 sequence — to that point, the Patriots had six first downs the entire game — and Manning flipped a 3-yard TD pass to Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas, who benefited when Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib left with a knee injury in the second quarter, had seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown in the triumph.

Brady, who was looking to make an NFL record sixth Super Bowl appearance, was 24-of-38 for 277 yards and a touchdown for New England, which played in its third straight AFC Championship Game.

“When you play good teams, the margin of error is slim all day. We dug ourselves in a pretty big hole,” Brady said.

LeGarrette Blount was limited to six yards rushing on five attempts after going off for 166 yards with a franchise-record four touchdowns against the Colts in the Divisional round.

“They didn’t play the Broncos last week,” longtime Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who will be making his first Super Bowl appearance, said.

New England moved the ball to the Denver 29 on its ensuing drive, but instead of electing to try a long field goal, went for a 4th-and-3. Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton came through the line to sack Brady for a 10-yard loss.

Matt Prater booted through a 19-yard field goal on Denver’s next drive before Brady hit Julian Edelman for a 7-yard score to get New England within 23-10.

After Prater’s 54-yard field goal staked Denver a 26-10 cushion with 7:00 left, Brady capped a 10-play, 80-yard sequence with a 5-yard TD run. Shane Vereen, though, was stopped at the line of scrimmage on the two-point try and Eric Decker recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt to essentially seal the outcome with 3:06 to play.

The game’s first points came on Prater’s 27-yard field goal on Denver’s second offensive series. New England went three-and-out on its first two touches.

Denver’s second-longest drive by time this year came during the second quarter. Manning rolled right before finding Jacob Tamme in the front of the end zone to finish the 7:50, 15-play, 93-yard march and make it 10-0.

Stephen Gostkowski and Prater traded field goals of 47 and 35 yards to give Denver its 10-point halftime edge.

Game Notes

The Broncos were 7-of-13 on third down and New England went 6-of-12 … Edelman caught 10 passes for 89 yards … Denver kept the ball for 35:44 … New England became the first team since the 2001-04 Philadelphia Eagles to go to at least three consecutive conference championship games.

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Seattle Slithers In

Final Score: Seattle 23, San Francisco 17

Seattle, WA  – Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass and then celebrated when his teammate came away with the pick. Moments later, he screamed into a TV camera that he was the best cornerback in the NFL.

One thing’s for sure: The Seattle Seahawks, in front of their noisy, proud fans, proved they were the best team in the NFC with a thrilling win over a division rival.

Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse in the fourth quarter and the Seahawks scored 13 unanswered points Sunday to beat the San Francisco 49ers 23-17 in the NFC Championship Game.

After Sherman tipped a pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the back-right corner of the end zone, linebacker Malcolm Smith picked it off to halt a 49ers drive in the final minute, sealing Seattle’s second Super Bowl trip.

The Seahawks will face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Feb. 2, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Denver beat New England 26-16 in the AFC title game Sunday.

Wilson passed for 215 yards, Marshawn Lynch rushed for 109 with a 40-yard touchdown run and top-seeded Seattle erased deficits of 10-0 and 17-10 for its seventh straight playoff win at home.

“It would really be a mistake not to remember the connection and relationship between the team and ‘The 12th Man,’ the fans,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said on the field after the game. “It’s really unbelievable.”

Kaepernick piled up 130 yards rushing, including a 58-yard scramble in the first half that set up Anthony Dixon’s 1-yard touchdown for a 10-0 lead.

Sherman celebrated Smith’s interception on his back in the end zone.

Replays showed him slapping Crabtree on the butt (he was penalized) and making a choking gesture after the play, but before he screamed into Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews’ microphone after the game that we was “the best corner in the game” and called Crabtree “a sorry receiver.”

Kaepernick had 3:37 and three timeouts to work with in the final drive and completed 5-of-6 passes — including a 17-yard throw to Frank Gore on fourth down — moving San Francisco from its own 22 to the Seattle 18-yard line before the interception.

Kaepernick passed for 153 yards with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin and two interceptions and had 98 yards rushing in the first half. He blamed himself for the loss.

“I didn’t play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game,” said Kaepernick, who also lost a fumble.

The fifth-seeded 49ers, in the NFC title game for the third straight season and looking to go back to the Super Bowl after losing to Baltimore last year, had an eight-game winning streak snapped.

The Seahawks finished a game ahead of the 49ers in the NFC West and had beaten them in their last two meetings in Seattle by a combined score of 71-16.

This one was much closer. It was a battle, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.

“It was a 15-rounder,” Harbaugh said. “Both teams played hard.”

Wilson had a free throw after the 49ers went offside on 4th-and-7 and threw it to Kearse, who leapt to pull down the 35-yard touchdown pass with a defender on his back to give the Seahawks their first lead of the game with 13:44 left.

They were close to building on the 20-17 advantage after Cliff Avril stripped Kaepernick and the Seahawks recovered at the San Francisco 6-yard line, but chaos ensued.

Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered what the team said initially looks like an ACL injury as he pulled the ball away from Kearse near the goal line on third down and Kearse landed on Bowman’s left leg, bending it sideways.

Kearse ended up putting the ball on the ground, but Lynch came away with it after a scramble. Wilson and Lynch then fumbled a handoff on fourth down to give the 49ers the ball at their own 15.

But Kaepernick underthrew Boldin on first down and Kam Chancellor picked the pass off, leading to Steven Hauschka’s 47-yard field goal with 3:37 left.

“This is where we want to be,” Carroll said. “We have an incredible opportunity to go to New York (for the Super Bowl). It is a challenge we will not take lightly.”

Lynch’s electric 40-yard touchdown run tied the score at 10-10 in the third quarter.

He started right, cut back through the middle of the line, nearly ran into tackle Alvin Bailey, then stumbled near the end of the run but avoided being tackled before plunging into the right side of the end zone.

Big plays were the norm in the second half.

Kaepernick’s 26-yard pass to a well-covered Boldin was tipped by Seattle’s Earl Thomas as both players leapt in the end zone, but Boldin came down with it for a 17-10 49ers lead midway through the third quarter.

Doug Baldwin returned the ensuing kickoff 69 yards down the right sideline to set up Hauschka’s 40-yard field goal to get Seattle within four.

Earlier, Aldon Smith strip-sacked Wilson on the game’s first play from scrimmage and Phil Dawson kicked a 25-yard field goal to give the 49ers the early lead.

LaMichael James fumbled a punt in the second quarter after a brutal hit by Seattle’s Ricardo Lockette, but the 49ers recovered the ball and Kaepernick slipped past four tacklers on a 58-yard dash that set up the game’s first touchdown.

Dixon soared over the line for a 1-yard score on fourth down at 10:03 of the quarter for a 10-0 lead.

Not to be outdone, Wilson used his legs to get Seattle points. He scrambled for time and found Baldwin behind two defenders for a 51-yard completion that set up Hauschka’s 32-yard field goal, pulling the Seahawks within 10-3.

Game Notes

Both teams gained 308 yards on offense … Seattle beat Carolina in the 2006 NFC title game and lost to Pittsburgh in the franchise’s only previous Super Bowl appearance … The 49ers fell to 6-9 in NFC title games … Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin missed the game with a concussion … 49ers guard Mike Iupati left the game with an ankle injury.

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